March-April 2012 | Features in Bethesda Health

Dispatch from the Sandwich Generation

On feeling spread too thin

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My husband thrust the Lifestyle section of the Bermudan newspaper at me as we sat in the airport awaiting our return to Washington after a four-night trip to celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary.

A man of few words, he simply tapped the relevant article. “Here. Read this,” he said.

I put on my reading glasses and squinted to see where his finger indicated.

Leo (July 23-Aug. 22): You’ll have to spread yourself a little thinner in order to take care of pressing matters concerning children or elders.

Even for a nonbeliever, my horoscope was startlingly apt. But the last line should have read: “children and elders.” Awaiting us back in the States that July day in 2009 were our son, Daniel, who would undergo back surgery in the morning, and my mother, who had been hospitalized unexpectedly during our absence.

When Daniel was a baby, we tried traveling sans child once, but it was such a disaster (wrath-of-God kind of disaster, complete with a car breakdown, a smoke-filled hotel room in the middle of the night and a red rash all over my body) that we didn’t do “couples’ trips” for years afterward. Now we were being reminded why.

We should have been in the clear by now. Our 17-year-old daughter, Nicole, was country-hopping in Europe with her best friend, staying with her friend’s relatives along the way. Although she had gotten sick soon after arriving, she was too far from home for us to help except with encouraging phone calls.

Our son was 21 and could happily manage without us, though a few days before leaving for Bermuda I’d taken him to the same orthopedist who had diagnosed a ruptured disc when Daniel was 12. A competitive ice hockey player, he had injured his back in a game at the time and ended up recuperating in bed. As the years went on, he was able to play again, but his sciatic nerve pain had worsened over time. Now it was so intense he was desperate. He could no longer sit for any length of time nor drive comfortably. Home from college for the summer, he reluctantly cut short a paid summer internship and agreed to return to his original orthopedist.       

The doctor ordered an MRI, but it wouldn’t occur until Monday. My husband and I were scheduled to leave for Bermuda that Saturday. “Daniel’s a big boy,” my husband reminded me when I expressed dismay over not being there. “He’s had MRIs before. He’ll be fine.”

That Monday, Daniel arranged for a friend to drive him to the test. The orthopedist looked at the films and immediately sent him to a neurosurgeon. By then, Daniel had lost the feeling in three of his right toes.

Immediate action was recommended to stop permanent damage. The surgeon had an opening that Wednesday, the day after our return from Bermuda.

Meanwhile, the day before Daniel’s MRI, my mother was sent by ambulance to the hospital after being found on the floor of the kitchen in her assisted living apartment. She couldn’t remember how she had gotten there. Daniel took the call and phoned me in Bermuda to tell me the news. I could hear the concern in his voice. “Nanny’s all alone there, Mom!”  

Despite his own pain, he drove himself to the hospital and sat beside her in the emergency room the entire night.

On Monday morning, the hospital floor nurse called me at 4 a.m. “We need you to come in and stay with your mother the rest of the night,” she said. “She’s delusional and combative. She’s pulling out her IVs and climbing out of bed. She’s out of control. We’ve given her Ativan and Haldol and even they aren’t working.”

In my sleepy stupor I responded, “I’m sorry, but I’m in Bermuda, so that would be impossible. But I’ll be back tomorrow and will see her then. And by the way, don’t you know that Haldol is not supposed to be given to Parkinson’s patients? It will only make her confusion worse.”

When we returned to Washington the next day, we drove directly from the airport to the surgeon’s office. Daniel’s surgery was scheduled for the next morning, and we needed reassurance that it was the right course of action.

Afterward, I went to see my mother. She barely recognized me at first. Her hair was splayed in all directions on the pillow, her arms and torso strapped to the bed. She looked crazed. The doctors still had no diagnosis except dehydration and possibly a urinary tract infection. But she suffered terribly from nighttime delusions—not uncommon among the elderly who are hospitalized, or so I had been told.